Shared Principles in History and Social Science Education

Keith C. Barton

In schools around the world, students study some combination of history and the social sciences. Although these are occasionally integrated into a single course or syllabus (sometimes with titles such as “social studies”), they are more often taught separately, especially in secondary schools. History, in particular, usually receives a dedicated share of the curriculum and often is a required subject; the fate of courses in geography, economics, sociology and civics or government varies somewhat more across settings. Because curricular time is limited, all these subjects may be seen as competing for the same space, and so any increase in requirements or resources for one subject will come at the expense of another. Perhaps because of a fear of losing this position of dominance, advocates for history education are particularly adamant that their subject provides unique knowledge and perspectives (e.g. Bradley Commission on History in Schools, 1988; Stearns, 2004; Tosh, 2008).

History advocates can be especially suspicious of integration with the social sciences or of suggestions that history be used to promote civic participation or other societal goals (e.g. Lee & Howson, 2009; Ravitch, 1988; Wilentz, 1997; Wilschut, 2009). As Bernstein (1971) has argued, the status of a school subject rests on its distinctness both from other subjects and from everyday experience. For history to continue enjoying its current dominance, then, some believe that it must maintain its separation from the social sciences, and it must remain aloof from the social and civic activities of daily life. Many history educators have thus embraced the idea that disciplines have unique ways of thinking, formulating problems and evaluating evidence, and that studying these con-

The author would like to thank Geena Kim of Indiana University for her invaluable assistance with portions of this chapter.

K.C. Barton (*)

School of Education, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, USA © The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_24

stitutes a valid educational goal in itself (e.g. Boix Mansilla & Gardner, 2008; Seixas, 2001). Terms such as disciplinary literacy (Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008), historical thinking (Ercikan & Seixas, 2015; Levesque, 2009; VanSledright, 2014) and historical reasoning (van Drie & van Boxtel, 2008) have become commonplace. This emphasis on disciplinary boundaries stems from, and reinforces, an aversion to curricular integration.

Although boundaries between disciplines are never clear and distinct, and no discipline constitutes a unified field of practice, they do indeed differ somewhat in the relative attention they devote to certain topics or methodologies, particularly at the more specialized level of the university. In the context of general education at the primary and secondary levels, however, emphasizing these differences may have the unintended consequence of impeding students’ understanding of each subject by failing to capitalize on areas of overlap and similarity (Thornton & Barton, 2010). Elements of “historical thinking” that have been promoted as the core of school curricula (e.g. causation, empathy, agency and evidence), for example, are precisely those features that history shares most closely with other social science fields. In addition, understanding the content of historical study—the people, events and trends that make up the substance of the field—depends on concepts that derive from subjects such as sociology, geography or economics (Rogers, 1995). If students have not learned the concept of cultural diffusion in their geography classes, for example, they will struggle to see the significance of the Silk Routes, and their history teachers will have to either take time to teach the concept or to settle for inadequate understanding. The attractiveness of disciplinary distinctiveness, then, should not obscure the presence of shared ground. Students would have greater insight into the variety of human thought and action—both contemporary and historical—if educators recognized the principles that are shared across history and the social sciences, and if they made greater efforts to coordinate teaching and learning in these subjects. This chapter aims to identify some of the most important of these areas of overlap.

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